Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Unexpected gems from Bill Gates illuminate a week of travel to Scotland and through space

Monday 26/1/2004

What I didn't say last Friday was that on finishing the diary, I was heading off to Scotland by train. Not just any train neither, but the GNER Wi-Fi Special: a satellite-connected marvel that trundles on a regular basis between London and Scotland. As do I. Please, Mr PR Man, can I test your wireless service? I can? Whoopee!

The journey up is a roaring success. You'll have to wait for the full write-up for the technical ins and outs, but the connection holds up much better than I had feared. The four and a half hour journey slips by in a caffeinated haze: if nothing else, the Internet is a fearsomely effective way to lose time.

As an experiment, I hook up a Web cam to the laptop and point it out of the window, relaying the images to the office. This proves almost infinitely entrancing, especially after someone hooks up a video projector back at base. IM after IM flow in, requesting that I point the camera at this or that, offering guesses as to how far I've got, and -- most popular of all -- asking that I spy on fellow passengers.

Of course, I have to comply. Whether it was the two suits sitting opposite who were ostentatiously planning to sell far too much consultancy to a Government agency ("That's a million quid right there, just for the feasibility! Yeah!") or the couple of matronly women who set up a card school and sank bottles of champagne between Newcastle and Edinburgh, the chaps back at base couldn't get enough of this cinéma-vérité of the permanent way.

Not that there aren't problems. The Web cam was a last-minute idea, and instead of some discreet little thing I'm packing an enormous Creative Technologies antique, a camera so massive it has four rubber feet to hold up its oversise lens. Surely, I think, my fellow passengers must spot what's happening. But they don't -- or at least, affect not to notice, even when I stand up and pan around the carriage ostentatiously with the true Goliath in my hand.

Monday, and I plan my return journey meticulously to optimise the views and opportunities for exciting footage. But signal failure -- of the old-fashioned, not wireless, kind -- means that I don't get a Wi-Fi train as planned and miss my connection. Not content with that, fate gives me one last jab in the ribs and arranges for us to sit out in the fields beyond York for an hour while the train in front of us is abducted by aliens from Doncaster.

Never mind. Given the state of popular TV, I think I'll pitch four and a half hours of East Coast main line Web cammery to BBC 4 as a themed evening. Can fame and fortune be far away? Tuesday 27/1/2004

Bill Gates is in town, picking up his knighthood and probably laying down the law over all this open-source silliness. He's even found time to give a quick interview: not to a journalist or other professional cynic but to Julian Hewett, chief analyst at Ovum. And it's all very pally. I wish there was space to reproduce it all, especially the bits where Jules and Bill compare notes about turning fifty -- I do hope Bill hasn't put all his money into one of those endowment mortgages -- but here are some snippets:

So here's Mr Gates, standing amazed at his own restraint in not putting prices up, although he is a bit fed up with the bum deal Microsoft gets from being such nice chaps and taken advantage of, all the time…
"…we have the magic of software, where a company like Microsoft can spend $6bn [on R&D] and not raise the price of the software. […] And so I think it's a little hard to predict anyone's domination. I'd rather be a customer than a vendor in this business. "

…and who is clearly moved by recent reports of exploitation in Asia by the IT industry, sees how lessons can be learned from this, and has a firm grasp of demographics (although his geographics doesn't encompass minor details such as the Mediterranean)…
"…China in manufacturing today defines what's state of the art. India in terms of IT services defines what's state of the art. Now the number of countries that are coming to also share in that is huge. I talked to the president of Pakistan -- he wants them to be in it. Down in Egypt they're saying, 'come on, we've got these great universities, great people, we're right here next to Europe, we want to help out on this'. And it's not like India is running out of people either… "

…and is suitably modest about the impact Microsoft's approach to, oh, security has had on the industry…
"I think one of the greatest contributions to the industry we've made is getting XML on the agenda, getting Web services on the agenda […] the transactions, the reliability, the rich security protocol, what I sometimes called 'advanced Web services' that are just now getting solidified and they will be part of the Windows run-time."

There's so much more, it's a shame to stop now. But it's good to see that Bill's not running out of steam just because his half-century's coming up. Oh, one last thing: here's what he had to say about the really big issue uppermost in many people's minds at the moment -- open source.

" ". Wednesday 28/1/2004

I've written about NASA's software woes on the Mars Rovers already this week, and in general the organisation's ability to fix bugs on systems millions of miles away is very impressive. Witness the continued science coming back from the Voyager spacecraft, which are by now two faulty and hugely outdated lumps of technology scootling away beyond the edge of the solar system. But they're still working, even if NASA has had to build computer simulations of the broken components in order to predict what the geriatric devices will do next.

But, um, why is Spirit so ill in the first place? Well, say the engineers, it's to do with the flash memory. It's got too many files. When you start the thing up in the morning, it tries to build a directory in RAM of the files in flash, and it won't fit. Y'see, it had been storing files for ages while it was cruising to the Red Planet, and nobody thought to delete them, and, well. You know how awkward it is when your disk is full and you run out of memory.

Amazingly, it seems nobody had tested for this: it happened eighteen days after the mission proper started, but they only ran the software for eight when they were debugging things. Now it's a bit awkward… nobody's saying too much, but it sounds like you can't delete files from the flash memory because you can't start up the filing system without it crashing. So they've got to try and manually delete a few files from a debugging script, but that's not running too well -- and at some point, they're just going to have to say blast it all, do the equivalent of FORMAT C:, and get on with some science.

You'll note they're not too worried about the other rover, Opportunity: again, the press conferences don't tend to say too much about this, but seeing as the filing system is running properly there I'd imagine there's no difficulty in deleting files before the build-up gets dangerous.

So, top marks for heroic rescue attempts: bottom marks for not spotting what is a bit of a standard gotcha. Let's get some close-ups of that rock garden, eh? Thursday 29/1/2004

Good to see that following a war where the country sent troops to die under false pretences and the BBC saw its standing rise internationally and at home by never losing sight of that possibility, sanity has been restored by the utter destruction of Auntie's top management. It's particularly heartening to see Alastair Campbell so happy, and so eager to share that happiness.

As a journalist, I'm particularly interested by the idea that things should only be reported once they are known to be true. There's no room in the modern media for reporters and editors to run with a story based on their experience, insight and background knowledge. Say I'm told by a man with a roadmap that a chip company is about to launch a new processor, but the chip company denies it outright when I ask them: who am I to say that just because last time it happened the chip company launched the thing hours later, there's a chance they may do the same again this time? Or let's pretend that a software company was making promises to fix a problem that they'd promised to fix for five years, but they'd always failed in the past and there was no sign they'd do differently this time: should I mention that in a story?

Clearly not. Best to stick to whatever facts we are given by those in positions of knowledge and power -- after all, as the Hutton report makes plain there is no deceit or incompetence where the great and the good are involved. And what better day to reflect on that than the one on which our arcane and outmoded drug laws are clarified by making possession of cannabis a nonarrestable offence -- then changing the rules so that you can be arrested after all.

Whatever they're smoking, I wish they'd share it around… Friday 30/1/2004

Today is Shuji Nakamura's day! You haven't heard of him? He's changed your life. He is the chap who invented the blue LED -- thus breaking forever the dominance of those red, green and orange twinkly lights that festooned our electronic equipment for 30 pointlessly dull years. Now our phones, our hi-fis, our car dashboards are all seas of glorious, beautiful blueness, with tiny, bright little lights that don't burn out, don't take much power but mostly just look gorgeous.

For this work of world-shattering brilliance, Nakamura was awarded around £120 by his company, which subsequently went on to earn somewhere north of £700m in royalties. The company, Nichia Corp, claims that as it was invented on its time, Nakamura has no rights to the blue LED at all: he, unsurprisingly, disagrees. It has to be said that his invention was a work of genius: he pursued an idea that everyone else dismissed, ran entirely contrary to received wisdom and came up with the goods through unalloyed, 24 carat braininess. He deserves more.

A court in Tokyo agreed, and decided that more in this case should be £120m, give or take. Of course, there'll be an appeal -- but I say no. The man has adorned the globe in gorgeousness. Give him his just reward.